It’s always interesting to find out all the other incarnations our designers have been through before they eventually find themselves as designers and Christina Murphy worked her way through art history, advertising and set design where she wound up miserably working on interiors for strip joints and RVs for grim-sounding movies. And grim she is not – she’s really lively, cheerful, appealing and forthright with a sound sense of her own design sensibility. One of five kids, she thought she would be having “like ten kids and no career at all” but instead she has forged her own way in this increasingly tough business.
So I want to ask you since you went to Georgetown, were you considering a career in the foreign service or international relations?
Not really. I was an art history major. We had a small art department but it was strong and I was one of the few people that actually studied art at Georgetown. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My mom was a housewife designer and there was always, like, a lampshade in the back of the car and these bolts of fabric she’d gotten on sale. Nothing was ever finished and it was all so unprofessional. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted a corporate job, an office and multiple elevator banks …
Why did you want a corporate job?
I just grew up at a time when we all watched “Broadcast News”— you know it was about women having a career. I had an aunt who was the fashion director of Town and Country and she said, “I would get into PR, if I were you.” She set me up with all these PR people. I didn’t even understand what PR was. If you can’t see it or touch it, I don’t get it. My first job was actually at an ad agency.
And how was that?
At the end of the day I felt like you were creating this thing that everybody is trying to get off their TV with Tivo and everything else. I thought this is not for me; I don’t know what I’m doing here. When I worked on commercials, I’d go out to Los Angeles to see how they were filming and I saw all these people doing set design and I thought, “Ah this is the answer!”
And was it?
So, I moved to LA and I thought, “If there’s just a director and a budget and I get the vision, this is going to be perfect!” What I hadn’t thought about is that you have no say on the movies you get. You have to beg for anything, anything! I was doing the [interiors] of strip clubs. It was horrible. I was doing the inside of an RV for two weeks. This was not what I signed up for! After two movies, I was like, “I gotta leave.” Eventually I went to the New York School of Interior Design.
Do you think you have to go to school to do this job?
Honestly, there’s very little that I learned there … if you have talent, then it’s helpful. If you don’t have talent, you’re not going to go get it. It gives you a certain kind of factual knowledge. I think it’s really important to know how to draft and to know how to read drafting plans. And there are textile classes where you learn things about analyzing fabrics.
How did you start to get work in this field then?
Three weeks into my design course, I ran into Celerie Kemble, who I had grown up with [in Palm Beach]. I was just starting school and she said, “Come help me. I don’t have any money to pay you but come.” Her mom had done my parents’ house.
Why did her parents call her “Celerie”?
Um … you know what’s funny is that her mom named her “Celerie” while she was still pregnant with her. It wasn’t like she popped out and looked like a vegetable. And all of these potted stalks of celery showed up in the hospital and the nurses were like, “Why is all this produce showing up here?”
So it was really after the vegetable?
Kind of … I guess. I think she [Celerie’s mom] thinks it’s a pretty word. Her real name is Cecilia.
So she embraced the “Celerie”.
She embraced the “Celerie”! I remember in design school this lady said, “No one will ever take you seriously if you have a nickname.” I was like … “Excuse me?!” It was Celerie’s branding device.
What did you learn from her?
It was the best experience ever. She taught me everything I know in terms of running a business and how to be an entrepreneur.
What do you find toughest about the job?
For me the business aspect is still the part that doesn’t come as naturally. I would do it all for free if I could. Celerie is more like, ‘Move forward!’ I would say, “I don’t like the color. I’ll repaint it and pay for it myself.” And she would say, “No! Move forward!”
On your website, you and your employees all look like sisters.
I know. [Laughs]
You all look as if you use the same hair color … don’t you have a dark-haired woman in the office?
We do, but everybody thinks she’s prettier as a blonde.
When you Google your name, a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader turns up. I wondered if perhaps you were all former Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders …
Exactly! And there’s also someone from America’s Next Top Model called Christina Murphy.
Your designs are full of color and I thought there would be more color in your apartment … why is that?
I know, I know … the mushroom palette. I became known for color. And I’m really comfortable working with color but I can’t commit to any [color]. I have my moments when I think “Oh, I must get some super bright pillows or whatever.”
Sian: Oh right, “the pillow thing?”
Yeah, the pillow thing. It’s like buying red lipstick. If you’re sick of it in six months, there’s not that much invested in it.
Lesley: Is that a well-known designer’s phrase: “the pillow thing”?
No … but we could try to make it one.
Do you wear color?
In Florida I do.
So do you live like a double life, the Florida life where things are in color and the New York one where they’re not?
[Laughs] A little bit … a little bit! In Florida I wear color and have to live in my parents’ house.
What’s their house like?
It’s so traditional, so traditional. My parents are from the mid-West. To me, if I had a Florida house, it would have big windows and lots of light but this house looks like it could be in Chicago. And they still have the same house they bought a year before I was born so I still have my own bedroom.
Did you take to life in New York easily?
Yes. I had grown up coming here. I mean the Upper East Side is like all Palm Beachers walking around and when I was 13, I went to boarding school in Connecticut. I went to Ethel Walker …
Oh that is a girlie girls’ school … like Miss Manners.
It’s a girlie girls’ school … I was homesick and it was kind of a boring school. I don’t look back on it like it was this wonderful time.
How many projects are you juggling at the moment? Is business coming in at last?
It’s crazy! We had a slow period in 2008. Right now I have too many projects.
Why do you think it’s picking up?
I don’t know. I don’t know if this is a false security. Everybody keeps telling me, “Ride the wave because it’s going to be over again.”
What do you do on a free day?
This is so dorky but I love going to down the Lower East Side and looking at bars and restaurants, looking at their fixtures and how they do their interiors … I can describe the lighting of every restaurant but not the food. I love shopping … I love Barneys, the jewelery.
But it’s so expensive!
I’m like, “Who can afford this?” And then I feel sorry for myself. And then I’m like, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.” And then I say you can pick one thing. And then I can’t pick my one thing. And then I say, “You should probably leave.” And I then I leave.